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April 19, 2011

Should Relaxers Be Used On Children?

By Dr. Phoenyx Austin

Just this past week I was featured in Essence Magazine’s Natural Hair Diary. I was interviewed by Patrice Grell Yursik, the natural-haired beauty known as Afrobella, who asked several questions about my natural hair journey- specifically when I got my first relaxer. I was actually in kindergarten when I got my first relaxer. And I must admit that despite my mother’s best intentions, I don’t believe that it was the best decision to relax my hair at such an early age.

Lots of natural-haired women first started getting relaxers when they were children. It’s something that’s very common- almost like a rite of passage. Oftentimes parents hold certain beliefs about natural hair and ultimately accept relaxers because they think it makes our hair “more manageable,” “socially acceptable,” and “pretty.” So as expected, parents will relax their child’s hair. It’s viewed as normal. But unfortunately, little thought goes into how a parent’s perceptions of natural vs. relaxed hair can negatively shape a child’s self-image and self-esteem.

Personally, I do not believe relaxers should be used on children. Why? My reason is threefold. One, from a professional standpoint, I don’t think relaxers are even healthy for adults, let alone children. Two, I think relaxing a child’s hair to make it “socially acceptable” and “pretty” will ultimately lead a child to reason and believe that their natural hair is something that’s “less acceptable” and “less pretty” without some sort of chemical alteration. And three, it is my belief that the decision to relax a child’s hair is also about a lack of information and knowledge about natural hair care. And considering all the current advancements in hair care, like tons of wonderful natural hair products, online forums such as CurlyNikki, as well as natural hair salons, I think we are at the time where relaxing a child’s hair should be the rare exception and not the rule.

Children are very impressionable and need time to develop a positive self-image. And relaxing your child’s hair at an early age, especially before they’ve been taught to appreciate and style their own natural hair, could ultimately lead to hair related self-esteem issues later on in life. Grant it, your child may grow up and ultimately decide that she wants a relaxer. But that decision should be made only AFTER she has been given the opportunity to develop a positive self-image through loving and appreciating her natural hair.

What are your thoughts on relaxers and little girls? Do you think it’s psychologically healthy to relax a child’s hair? And if a child/parent does want a relaxer, when do you think is the most age appropriate time to get a relaxer?

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40 Chime in!:

brunettefury said...

Sometimes I wonder why this is even a question. I mean, I understand why it is a question, but I just wish it wasn't. The chemicals are harsh and I think it's extreme to relax a child's hair. I don't have any issues with people occasionally straightening a child's hair with a hot iron, but I think chemical relaxers are pushing it.

My mum had the right idea to keep me natural as long as she could (sans for a stint where my step-mother permed my hair with my mum's consent). Unfortunately, by the time I hit middle school, I was influenced by people around me and what I saw in the media, not to mention my mother was relaxed. My relaxed hair was healthy for years with the proper care (thanks to mum), but eventually the health of my hair deteriorated when I went off to college. I think if I had known more about the chemical process, known how to care for my hair and known about how versatile and unique my hair could have been, I would have made the choice to remain natural even as a teen.

Anonymous said...

I don't think relaxers should be used on children. I've seen a lot of beautiful hair destroyed by perms. We have become so dependent on perms that few of us are adept at styling and caring for our own hair much less a child's. Most of the women I know have some negative feeling about the whole natural journey. They don't want to walk around with "nappy" hair. All of this negativity starts when we are just little girls looking to our mothers for guidance. If they don't have natural hair why should we? As far as an age to get a perm I don't know. With all the hormonal changes that occur in young bodies is introducing such a toxic chemical to the body safe. Maybe armed with more information we will start to see parents making different decisions.

Afro Adie said...

I don't think they should be used on children or anybody for that matter. Unfortunately, I didn't always feel this way. My 13 year old daughter is relaxed, while my 6 year old daughter isn't. I deeply regret ever relaxing the oldest's hair. But I do thank God for the knowledge that I'm getting about natural hair now. I am working on getting her over to the "other" side.

J'Anns Boutique said...

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Sorry for the dramatics. But my mom's frustration with having to "deal" with my hair, has lead us to where I am today (transitioning). I think parents need to just research and gain more knowledge on how to maintain their kids hair types before turning to the "easy" solution.


A Girl's Next Best Friend

Anonymous said...

My hair was first relaxed when I was four years old. I never had a chance to get to know my natural hair or decide for myself if it was pretty or not. My mom sees my natural hair now and she says, "its so beautiful. I didn't do that when you were little, though. It didn't curl, it was all nappy and dry." This statement really makes me angry on so many different levels. Maybe my hair didn't "do this" because you never took the time to learn how to care for natural hair. And since when do you combat dry hair with a chemical relaxer?! And if my hair didn't have curl pattern, it would still be beautiful because it's mine and no one else has it. And yes, having relaxed hair at such a young age did leave me with a negative complex about my own hair.
I think children's hair should not be relaxed until they are old enough to make that decision for themselves. And this should come after only once they have been educated about their own hair and are aware of the risks of having their hair chemically processed. I understand that it's all about style and preference, but if I could go back in time, I'm not sure if I would have kept relaxing my hair for as long as I did. Thanks Curly Nikki and other sites like this for educating people about what grows out of their heads. I'd be lost without your aid!

StaceyMarie said...

I don't think relaxers should be used on children because they're chemicals that can cause permanent damage, to both the hair/scalp and to a child's self-esteem/self image, and it is a choice forced upon a child. Two of my cousins are prime examples: The oldest's hair was relaxed when she was around 4. She's now 19 and I've never seen her hair past her chin and it's broken off and dry. Her younger sister's hair wasn't permed until she was about 7 and she had mid-back length hair at the time. She's 12 now and her hair is broken off to around shoulder length and dry. Both of them have decided to follow my lead and go natural because they've seen how healthy and long my hair is in a relatively short period of time and my younger cousin misses her long, thick hair. I got my first relaxer at 9 and had thick, slightly longer than shoulder-length healthy hair (as healthy as relaxed hair can be, I guess) until college. In just over 2 years time (counting my 8 month transition), my hair is longer than it was in 20 years of relaxing. I won't relax my future daughters' hair, but will allow them to decide once they turn 18.

I agree that a lot of parents see relaxers/presses as the easy way out. My mom did what everyone did at the time (it was better than the Jheri curl my dad's mom made me get w/out my parents' knowledge!), but she's natural now, too! My supervisor has her 4 yr old's hair pressed and plaited every 2 weeks because she doesn't like her hair "when it's all nappy". (I'm afraid to ask if she's ever said that out loud to her daughter) Both of them have fine hair. I wonder what she'll think of her decision when this kid grows up and has no edges?

Anonymous said...

Had I known then what I know now; i would have NEVER permed my daughters hair! However,there wasn't much information of products for natural hair 19 years ago. I really tried my best not to put a perm in but my daughter had a HEAD FULL of THICK hair and she did not like me doing her hair. I had only one friend back then who said...Don't ever put a relaxer it her hair...it's beautiful! I wish I would have listened to my friend, but what did I know?

CurlyInTheA said...

To put in a relaxer or not to put in a relaxer is a debate in my household. I am holding off for as long as I can with my 12 and 10 year old. Suprisingly, I get the most "flack" from my husband, who wants my girls to perm their hair. He's got his own hair issues, but he's got to work them out. I have refused and told him that if he wants to perm their hair, he can take them to the beauty shop every two weeks, touch-ups every 3 months, etc. He doesn't do their hair at all, so trust me, it's just talk, but he thinks they should be able to make up their minds about a perm once they reach their cycles. I told him that they won't be the ones maintaining their hair, I will. And they won't be paying for it either, so why should they get all the "choices." Now, as they grow older (maybe 16) and I see that they are fully able to maintain their hair (I've given the 12 year old the hair reigns and I'm taking them back because her hair has become very dry as a result)I may change my mind. And did I mention that they both swim 2-3 times a week in the summer? They both have thick waist length hair when stretched. For right now it's a blow dry and flat iron when they want a straighter look and I'm trying my best to instill in both of them the beauty of their own, God-given hair.

modest-goddess said...

My youngest half-sister relaxed my 2 year old nieces hair. I let her know I did not approve by asking why she relaxed her hair. Over a year has gone by and I haven't followed up on the situation. Maybe I should start sending her some links to give her knowledge on how to care for her daughter's hair.

Caitlin said...

I was relaxed at age 5 and am now 19. For as long as I can remember I resented my mom for relaxing my hair. I have always wanted my hair back but never had the idea of transitioning until 2 years ago. Now I am fully natural and I love my natural hair.

Sharmer said...

I dont thinks so. I wish my mom would have never had my aunt relax my hair. I was only about 5 yrs old and I consider that the reason my hair has never grown past my collarbone. I cant imagine how long my hair would be now had I'd always been natural. I honestly think our parents were just to lazy to figure out how to deal with curly hair. Thank God I am transitioning now, and my future daughter will wear her natural hair for as long as she lives under my roof. When she goes off on her own into the world then she can decide whether or not she wants to change that.

am said...

Children shouldnt have perms - the chemicals are too harsh. However I do think we should cut the parents some slack. Parents (most) typically mean well and at that point in time did what they thought was best. I think anything before the age of 12 is too early.

Anonymous said...

I hate the fact that little Clack girls cannot live a carefree lifestyle like other young girls do. They can't run outside, go swimming, play in the sprinkler/ water hydrant, sweat or anything that all children like to so b/c of hair. Children should be allowed to be children and have fun and not worry about thier hair. The natural hair community should make sure that we encourage Black women with young girls to educate themselves on hair care. And if they do not want to learn volunteer and tell them that you will help them. That is what I had to do with my nieces. It is worth the time to know that my sister is not going to slap a perm on my nieces head

Chaunece said...

I had my first relaxer when I was in kindergarten as well. I had thick waist length hair, My mother alwasy took very good care of my hair and I think her main reason was that she didn't have the time, and also I was tender headed. I don't resent her for giving me the realxing but I do wish that I had the opportunity to make the decision myself instead of having to transition later on in life. I still think my mother was very safe and precautious with the relaxers that she did put in my hair and it remained just as long and thick and was healthily in the middle of my back by the time I began to transition my hair. It wasn't until I started the transition process that my hair started to break off and get shorter because I didn't know what I was doing. But I can honestly say the getting a relaxer did NOT have a negative effect on my hair or scalp. I think any hair care method, you just have to know how to take care of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm completely against relaxing children's hair. My hair was relaxed for the first time when I was either 6 or 7. I now have a 5 week old baby girl and will not relax her hair. I look forward to teaching her how to embrase her natural hair. I'm sure if my mother knew what she was putting in my hair she wouldn't have done it. Especially since I've now been natural for 10 years and she happens to be transitioning, yay!! Go figure, I finally got through to her!!!

Anonymous said...

I don't think relaxers should be used on young girls especially as young as four, five, or six years old. For the record, the decision to relax my hair was mine and not my mother's. My mom did not even get a relaxer in her own hair until after her daughters (my oldest sister being the first to lead us down this path)relaxed. We all thought it was great because it freed us from the straigthening comb (lol!!!).

However, I strongly disagree with this notion that some psychological damage will occur to the child if the parent decides to opt for the relaxer. It is my skin color that makes me black and the rich heritage of our experiences that makes me proud. And it has never been wrapped up in the texture of my hair. I was just as proud to be an AA woman when my hair was relaxed as I am now as a natural.

Based on this writer's reasoning, should a mother then relax her daughter's hair if she develops a "hair self-esteem issue" because her hair is natural while her peers are relaxed?

One of my best friends in high school wore her hair in a afro and while there was certainly classmates who teased her or constantly asked her why she doesn't have a perm; I admired her because she was strong, different, and smart (kind of like me because while I had a perm I didn't wear pants so I was asked a bunch of stupid questions too).

Self-esteem is developed by having loving parents and primarily for me enveloping myself in the knowledge that I am loved by God.

G said...

Relaxers are definitely not for little children. I allowed my daughter to relax her hair at 15 and knows all about natural hair (I've been natural 8 years). She runs track in H.S. and felt a relaxer would be easier to maintain. Well, she'll be 17 next month and is now transitioning. I didn't have to say a word. She got to experience first hand that a perm doesn't guarantee easier maintenance, and can affect overall health (texture, growth) of your hair.

cassidybarrett said...

My mother relaxed my hair when I was 4 or 5. So I can relate. I'm Senegalese and in my country, it's more a lack of information than anything. They think natural hair is high maintenance and cannot be combed.

Candace4life said...

Well I don't think a child should get a perm until maybe around 9 or 10yrs old. Then if the parent decides that they don't like the look and the hours spent on a sat in the shop getting it done. Then keep the little ones hair natural and let it grow that way.

________________________________________________

FYI ladies: Saw this info mention on naturalchica website

To those of you that are going to the World Natural Hair Show in Atlanta. There will be some bloggers that you can also meet from youtube that you see alot. Meet bloggers ~ Naturalchica 12-2pm on Sun... Taren916 2-4pm on Sat..... and Afrobella 12-2pm on Sat ath the Huetiful Booth it will be booth #152 for Sat and Sun 4/30 thru 5/1/11.
Georgia International Convention Center,
2000 Convention Center Concourse
College Park, GA 30337

adrien said...

i got my first relaxer @ 12. i had extremely thick long hair as a kid and i was EXTREMELY tender headed. it was torture, i would cry when i heard someone say "go get the comb" lol. i hadn't even heard of relaxer, i though my black friends who had straight hair just pressed it like my gramma's did mine. i told a friend "man i wish there was a spray or something you could just put on your hair to make it straight". she was like "uh....RELAXER!" i begged my mom and she finally gave in. i was more concerned with it not hurting than i was about the "look" tho. then i hated going to get touch ups lol. it's so tragic to see a 2y/o with a relaxer, i'm like REALLY?? that's just lazy imo.

Jeannette said...

All the little girls in my family have natural hair. I do feel that five is too young to relax a child's hair and wonder is it easier on the Child or the Adult? I don't think it's psychologically healthier either way, as long as the child understands that her natural hair is beautiful relaxed or not is what is healthy psychologically. I got my first relaxer when I was eleven but feel that my parents should have waited a little longer. At least until my teenage years so I can decide for myself. When I was a child with relaxed hair, I liked my hair weeks post relaxer. It was thicker, easier to style, and prettier. Which makes me realize that I had a natural mindset even when I was a young child with a relaxer.

Flip said...

Timely topic for me. Just last week my beautiful 5 year old daughter confided in me that one of her school playmates was teasing her because her hair wasn't as long as the other girls. (she is 1 of 2 Amer-African children in her class..the other is bi-racial). I do everything that I can think of to instill a sense of beauty and esteem within her from daily assertions of her beauty to purchasing every doll and Barbie "of color" that I can find, yet it is a constant battle to combat the Westernized standard that permeats every facet of media that methodically attempts to erode her love and appreciation of self. I am ademately against relaxing childrens hair as well as weaves, extensions, tracks, etc. not only for esteem but for health concerns as well. How many women are experiencing Alopecia and other physical challenges that are directly related to the love/hate relationship we have with our hair? For 8 years I wore my hair in locs. I was perfectly fine with the social compromises one must accept when wearing ones hair in that style, but I was constantly amazed at the negative comments I occasionally received from Black women. One woman who I'd never met before walked right up to me and remarked that I had "such pretty 'good' hair", why would want to "mess it up like that?". I replied, "Why would you do that to yours?" (hers was relaxed and dyed burgandy). I truly believe that the answer to this lies with my brethren. When black men as a whole learn to cherish, love and protect the image of black women with the same ferocity that other cultures protect theirs, then and only then will black women understand and embrace the extraordinarily natural beauty that they possess and exude. I'm going to continue to do everything in my power to insure that my daughter has a powerful sense of regal beauty both inside and out.

Anonymous said...

Relaxers are bad. LOL. They may make us look more attractive to a lot of people, but we end up paying a huge price (financially, emotionally, physically) for them. Many of us may not have realized it years ago, but we know now. I have an excuse for the relaxers that I used to get in my own hair, but there is simply no excuse for having one put into a child's hair knowing what I know now.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Flip. Amen.

an opinion on natural hair products said...

Is it psychologically healthy to relax a kid's hair? I tend to feel negatively about doing this, because of what you point out about the kid receiving this strong message that she needs to treat her hair in order for it to look good, especially when a person is in this young, impressionable period of life. At the same time, I could see parents presenting this situation in a positive light to their kid and giving their kid the option of doing it, perhaps. I think the psychological effects of this have a lot to do with HOW this is approached, not just the fact that it is done.

With that said, there is no way I'd ever relax my child's hair. There are some seriously strong chemicals that comprise those relaxants and some of them WILL be absorbed into the body of whoever uses them--and you're putting these on your HEAD. That is not cool. Couple that with the fact that children's skin absorbs chemicals from shampoo and conditioner and lotion far easier and more readily than an adult, and you've got a bad situation there. I would not do this. I think in this day and age of such a huge cancer epidemic, we need to be doing more to keep our kids as free as we can from synthetic chemicals in the products they use on their body. I don't think we have to be hippie fanatics about it, but at least teach them and lead by example about the importance of living more chemically-free these days...

Anonymous said...

Cosign Flip!!! Best response I've seen in a while.

Anonymous said...

My hair was relaxed just before I turned three, and while I don't hate my parents for it, I definitely wish that hadn't been the case. My hair has been a source of frustration for me all my life; it's always been treated like it's a problem. Only after finding out what my REAL hair my looks like (because I had no idea I had curls, I had never seen them) and learning that I didn't have to relax it did I start falling in love with my hair.

Anonymous said...

It gets worse...my kids are in middle school and a lot of the girls at 13 yrs old are wearing weaves.

Anonymous said...

I feel as if we should teach our little ones to embrace who God has made them

Rae said...

Though I'm not sure if I asked my mother for a relaxer or not, I do know that I was only 5, so whether I wanted it or not, my mother shouldn't have given in. Self-esteem issues that I am STILL struggling with most definitely stemmed from my hair issues. I'm not saying I wouldn't have had self-esteem issues had I not gotten a relaxer (ahem, I'm a black woman in a white America; self-esteem issues come with the territory) but I could've done without the pain and tears that my hair caused me for almost 13 years of my life.

I will give the side-eye to ANY mother/father that relaxes their child's hair. It's just wrong.

Anonymous said...

I think it's ridiculous to relax at such a young age. I mean, I've read on forums and blogs where some women have never known (or at least can't remember) what their hair was ever like! I find that so baffling!

If it's such a problem, keep it short.

Anonymous said...

I got my first relaxer in elementary school (8-9ish), while "I" can say I wasn't damaged by it, this is also b/c there were naturals in my family for as long as I can remember. Natural wasn't a bad thing. From my own memories and family stories, for a child who swam as much as I did and was so tender-headed, a relaxer left on for a few minutes cut out the craziness in multiple weekly wash-times. However, I only got them 3-4 times a year max until I went natural several years ago. I saw relaxers as seasonal processes (Easter, back-to-school, Christmas). That's it.

I don't think it is "right", but I'm coming to terms with the fact that many black mothers (esp. the young ones), may actually think that they are doing their daughters a favor by sparing them some of the shame that THEY felt and were subjected to at a young age. The intention might be of sparing their daughters of shame and torment. I have a looser texture, but... I'm certainly not "loose" in my family and having friends with tighter textures growing up exposed me to how much harsher the teasing can get if your hair is really tight. I don't think it is right... but I also don't think that the attitude comes out of nowhere. I am more focused on educating these moms, than shaming them.

So many women say that they re-thought their own identities with beauty after having black daughters. You can come back from relaxers (if not the crazy month-touch ups). And at least you can touch your hair. The too-tight braiding moms get me most of all. Don't yank out your kid's hairline before they are five. That's cruel. I'm all for natural kids, but I get nervous about no one ever talking about too-tight braiding if you DO have totally natural girls.

When my mom went natural, (like 20 years ago), I didn't due to swimming and also... we had different hair types which is why relaxing was seen as an option in the first place. I knew how to care for my hair relaxed, didn't have growth issues, and I was 10 to boot, wasn't trying to NOT look cute on purpose. A relaxer a few times a year gave me INCHES without a pressing comb. Puberty and all.

I don't want to label all little girls with relaxers as damaged*, nor their mothers. I have a stronger stance against too tight braids/beads/weaves on toddlers. 3 & 4 year-olds patting their heads over African braids is too common a sight, but no perms in my circles.

*I'm aware that my socio-economic group may contribute to me not really knowing little black girls getting perms (while I was a child) before 7-8+ as a common experience.

Anonymous said...

I didn't get my first relaxer until 16 and that was because my mom's friend had given it to me behind my mom's back. I am sure if her friend wasn't around, I wouldn't of had one. At first I liked the straightness and the compliments but after a good year my hair broke off. If I knew the things I do now, I wouldn't of got one. I think it's the pressure to be like everybody else that makes us want to give in. I was teased badly when I had my afro from middle school to high school.

Anonymous said...

I think its a personal choice to perm your hair. I do agree with Afrobella on the fact that its socially constructed. Most people get their hair permed young without any option. i believe that the option should be available, i wish i would have gotten it. There is alot of miseducation with natural hair and perms. When you know better, you do better! Keep up the beautiful ahir ladies!

Cookie said...

I think I got my first relaxer at 6. I know my hair was very thick and my mom was a mother of 5, a wife and a teacher. So, I see why, I guess. We are all natural now except one of my sis. With that being said; I would NEVER relax my future babies' hair. I have the knowledge and the info is out there on how to style and maintain. I don't care if they're 14 y/o or whatever. I wouldn't permit them to do crack and wouldn't approve the creamy kind either.

MsPooh said...

I used to joke with a friend of mine (who has 3 daughters) that if I ever had a little girl, she'd have a perm by the time she was 2! The things that she had to do to keep those heads together...wow! I've been natural now for about 3 1/2 years and it's the best decision I ever could have made for my hair. I love getting to know my natural texture and learning to style my hair. It's been quite a journey (and the bad hair days are a bear to deal with!), but I'm glad I did it. I wouldn't put a relaxer in my hair for anything right now...and I wouldn't deprive a young girl the privilege of getting to know her natural texture...finding the same joy and pride I found.

Kristin said...

I've never considered it (relaxing) for my daughter and I appreciate this post and all these stories in supporting my decision. I have long strawberry blond straight hair and while figuring out my daughters hair has been a journey I believe we have bonded through all the learning experiences. I have found that using very natural products wi/out mineral oil, fragrance, parabens, sulfates etc. is best for her as any regular drugstore products like Aveeno break her skin out.

Now my smallest daughter who has straight hair gets jealous of all the "mommy time" her big sister gets doing hair which is sweet so I give her pony tails and such to appease her need for hair attention.

My 5yo has friends with extensions and I've had other moms recommend products with ingredients that just freak me out. Keeping my baby healthy is so much more important to me than keeping her pretty to society standards set by others. She is a little goddess to us who loves swimming and keeping her curly hair curly (not in braids or pony tails) and we make it work with lots of good conditioner and tender care. Sometimes ice cream helps too if she is having a particularly hard time letting me get the tangles out. Also I give the option to cut it instead occasionally which she's only taken me up on once, it was cute but she doesn't want to do that again. :-)

Anonymous said...

Relaxers are chemicals...not natural. We all know that. It can destroy not only children's fragile hair / scalp, but adults as well. That's my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I permed my childrens hair due to family pressuring me and making me feel horrible that my three girls didnt get the grade of hair as me. Now im paying for my weakness i permed all my childrens hair at the age of one and now all of their hair is coming out in patches and its so uneven i feel really stupid for doing this and making my children bald...i really dont know where to go from here...i really need help

Danyelle Claxton said...

There is a hair salon in Detroit, MI that specializes in African American and Multi Racial hair care for children. They just recently updated their website and are beginning to blog about hair care. Check them out at http://www.haroldsplace.com/#!welcome-/mainPage

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